On the way to Afghanistan, Holbrooke seeks to ease tensions with NATO

Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, wants to unify allies at a time when many Europeans sense drift in the war and a lack of clear US policy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is traveling to Europe and Moscow before attending Afghan President Hamid Karzai's second inauguration next week, for what the State Department says are "routine meetings."

But with deep divisions surfacing in the Obama administration's internal debate on the future course in Afghanistan, and with European allies starting to air their concerns about a lack of direction in the war effort, the visits look to be more about easing tensions.

Mr. Holbrooke, who attended the president's Afghanistan policy review session Wednesday, was in Berlin Thursday and is in Paris Friday, before returning to Germany Saturday. He will then go to Moscow Sunday, before heading to Kabul to attend President Karzai's inauguration for his second term Nov. 19.

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"These routine meetings are part of continued efforts to stay in close touch with allies and partners on Afghanistan and Pakistan," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday, in announcing Holbrooke's travel.

But Holbrooke's purpose in NATO-member capitals especially is more likely aimed at addressing consternation over a sense of drift in the war and a lack of any clear US policy for going forward, some analysts say.

"The ongoing public debate about Afghanistan has already cost the US credibility with its NATO allies and is confusing our regional allies, who are starting to hedge their bets and plan for a decreased US commitment to the region," says Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

European allies have been privately communicating their growing unease – especially as home constituents turn against the NATO war effort in growing numbers, as polls from Britain to Germany show.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner took the complaints public earlier this month, when he told foreign journalists from NATO countries that the Alliance effort in Afghanistan is "not working at all" and that Mr. Obama's months-long deliberation on a revised Afghan strategy was beginning to take its toll.

"Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem," Mr. Kouchner said. "We need to talk to one another as allies," he added, calling the lack of communication "shameful" especially because "our [allied] soldiers are dying."

Holbrooke thus may be visiting Europe to assure allies that everyone is still on the same page, but it is not clear what page he will refer to.

In Washington this week, the depth of the division within the Obama administration over Afghan policy became clear after a memo was leaked in which the US ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, expressed deep doubts about the wisdom of sending more US troops. The rampant corruption of the Karzai government is so problematic as to warrant holding off on additional military commitments until the government's behavior changes, he said.

Despite the airing of differences in Washington – which prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to quip that people need to "shut up" – some analysts say the policy debate is starting to show some clarity.

For example, Obama is likely to OK additional troops for Afghanistan, but not the full 40,000 requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The middle-road option would presumably call on NATO partners to add more troops as well – a point Holbrooke may be signaling during his visits.

Holbrooke's NATO stops say "we're anxious to buttress what our allies are already doing with some additional support," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence expert now with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Heritage's Ms. Curtis says Holbrooke may indeed be "taking the pulse" of allies on their Afghanistan plans. But she adds that he'll first have to address their growing discomfort.

"These very public and prolonged deliberations are causing confusion among our allies, especially when contradictory statements are being aired," she says. "The allies want to show unity on Afghanistan, but we're starting to see that their comprehension [of the extended policy review] is wearing thin, and that should be of concern to the Obama administration."

See also:

Afghanistan war: Brown's call signals NATO ready to boost forces

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